Beignet. Zeppole. Puff puff. Oliebol. Whatever you call it, and wherever you are in the world, you’re sure to find some form of fried dough snack unique to that region and culture. Here in the U.S., it’s doughnuts (a.k.a. donuts)—and, boy, do we love them. Since 2011, doughnut sales have steadily increased, and industry revenue topped $16 billion in 2015. That’s a lotta dough! (Sorry, I can’t resist a good bun pun.)
So, where did doughnuts originate, and why are they so darn popular?
Rising Up from Contested Origins
Were Doughnuts Born in Britain?
For as long as human beings have been cultivating grain and frying food, we’ve been eating something similar to doughnuts. According to Michael Krondl, food historian and author of “The Donut: History, Recipes, and Lore from Boston to Berlin,” the ancient Greeks and Romans ate small cakes that were fried and dipped in honey. Variations of this toothsome snack were enjoyed throughout Europe for centuries. However, the word doughnut seems to have originated in northeastern England around 1750.
Krondl explains it was then that the first recipe, which called for taking “dough the size of a walnut” and frying it, appeared in print. He claims doughnuts were an obscure British specialty made by the residents of Hertfordshire for Fat Tuesday, while the rest of England celebrated Carnival by making pancakes. What’s more, immigrants from Hertfordshire and the surrounding area were some of the first to colonize New England, and brought the recipe with them to America. The rest, as they say, is history.
Related Reading: What Are Paczki and Why Are They So Popular on Fat Tuesday?
Or Are Doughnuts Dutch?
But not so fast, says food historian and author Peter G. Rose, who firmly believes it was the Dutch who invented the doughnut. “The proof is in the pudding,” she posits, since a recipe for olykoek, or fried dough balls filled with sweetmeats—a mixture of almonds, raisins, chopped apples, and cinnamon—was first published in 1667 in a cookbook from The Netherlands titled “The Sensible Cook.” When Dutch immigrants settled in the Hudson River Valley in the 17th century, they brought the recipe with them. It evolved over the years into something much more similar to today’s version of the doughnut, with the addition of eggs and butter to lighten the batter.
In all likelihood, both Krondl and Rose are correct, since history shows certain dishes were invented almost simultaneously in different cultures around the world. Meanwhile, the cake doughnut is very much an American invention. According to Krondl, around 1830, when leavening became commercially available, New Englanders used it to make the dough rise more quickly, as opposed to the traditional method of using yeast. As for the hole in the doughnut, he says, the most rational explanation for it is that removing the center from a ball of dough helps it cook more evenly in a shorter period of time.
Doughnut Plant Cake Doughnut Classics Dozen, $89 on Goldbelly
A modern example of perfecting the format.
A Holey Tale
Then there’s the story of Hanson Gregory, a young sailor from Maine whose mother supposedly created the doughnut as a portable snack for her son to enjoy with his shipmates on long journeys. Legend has it that once Gregory became a sea captain, he invented the hole in the doughnut by piercing its center with a spoke of his captain’s wheel. As much as we may wish it to be true, Gregory revealed in an interview years later that the story about the hole was pure fiction.
However, another entertaining tale involving New England whaling ships in the 19th century, is apparently accurate. In terms of ways to make a living, whaling could be quite lucrative, but it was also very dangerous. Once they harpooned a whale, the crew needed to make quick work of stripping the blubber and melting it down into oil in gigantic cauldrons, called trypots, on the deck of the ship. To keep them motivated, captains would reward their crew for every 1,000 barrels they produced with a big batch of doughnuts fried in—you guessed it—hot whale oil, which is said to smell very fishy. The crew gobbled them up, regardless.
Wilton Non-Stick Donut Baking Pans, 2 for $13.50 on Amazon
You can also bake your own doughnuts at home, no oil required (whale or otherwise).
While it may seem like there’s a doughnut shop popping up on every corner these days, our apparent obsession with this ring-shaped treat is nothing new. Krondl points out that in the 1930s, the National Dunking Association was established by the Doughnut Corporation of America to increase consumption and promote the idea of dunking doughnuts in your beverage of choice, such as coffee, tea, or milk. People all across the country went wild for it at the time, even though dunking doughnuts was considered déclassé.
The appropriately named Dunkin’ Donuts, one of the industry’s most recognizable brands, sells approximately 2.9 million doughnuts and doughnut holes globally per year. Patricia Healy, senior director of integrated marketing for Dunkin’ Brands, attributes the recent surge in doughnut popularity to a combination of nostalgia and flavor innovation. From start to finish, she says, “the entire process of developing a new doughnut takes 18 months in the Dunkin’ Test Kitchen.” This includes regional specialties, such as the peanut stick in upstate New York, the sour cream doughnut in Chicago, and the pork floss doughnut in Asia.
If market trends are any indication, the doughnut craze is far from over. This month, KFC is rolling out its (un)holy fried chicken donut sandwich nationwide. Who knows what the next innovation will be?
And as for the history of the doughnut, its true origin may never be determined. But don’t let that stop you from sharing this selection of doughnut lore with your coworkers over a box of crullers at the office—in terms of entertainment value, it’s sure to be a slam dunk.
Related Reading: These Los Angeles Doughnuts Are Ready for Their Close-Up